Challenges with learning a 1st roll – part 1 – Equipment

I doubt many people would disagree with the statement that the first roll you learn is probably the hardest. Last weekend I had the pleasure of working with multiple paddlers who wanted to learn to roll, each had a different challenge. Through my experiences of the past couple of years of teaching I have seen three distinct (and obvious) categories of challenges that people tend to experience:

     1. Equipment
     2. Physical fitness
     3. Mental fitness

I will highlight each area in separate posts starting here with equipment.

Mostly I coach at pool sessions. People show up enthusiastically with their kayaks and gear, eager to mimic those people they have seen rolling. Many are ill equipped and do not appreciate the additional challenge their equipment can create for them to learn that elusive first roll.

Kayak size and shape

Many people seem to buy kayaks that are too big for them, “cruisers”, as their first kayak, comfortable kayaks, that sit tall and seem nice and stable. Large stable kayaks have two challenges for the beginning roller; big wide kayaks can be stable upside down too. Kayaks that have a large primary or secondary stability when upside down cause the paddler to need to overcome this tipping point during the phase of the roll when they are underwater and least comfortable. And they will need more exertion of their core and leg muscles, in ways that they are not yet familiar with. Larger kayaks also, in general, have higher back decks, and consequently higher cockpit rims. The consequence of high cockpit rims is it makes it harder to layback due to the position of the kayakers butt and back relative to the coaming edge. Some kayaks also come with backrests that rise up above the cockpit coaming, exacerbating the height problem still further.
When presented with a paddler in their kayak I ask them to lie back while I am in the water next to them to balance their kayak. I place my hand behind their head and measure the gap, if it’s more than a fist height it is going to be a harder experience for them and I will attempt first to adjust their kayak and seating position, and if that doesn’t help I will suggest they learn first in one of my kayaks to get comfortable with the body movements, before they try and get their own kayak rolling. Rolling is easiest when the paddler has a strong positive contact between their legs and the kayak. Whether that is with a traditional masik, foam thigh braces or just a sheet of foam resting on their thighs. Make sure they are in contact with the kayak at all times so they can quickly apply leg pressure when needed. If they have to hunt for the side of the kayak to make contact with their legs they will have a tough time at first when upside down. Consider moving the foot pegs to force their legs to be in constant contact with the kayak. Remember though when learning we all tend to use too much pressure and end up bruising our legs. Make sure appropriate padding exists, or at least warn the paddler to expect bruising and pain if they don’t have it.

Spray skirts

It is fairly rare to be teaching a first roll to someone wearing a tuilik. More often than not first timers show up with a nylon spray skirt, which has little to no stretch in it. Once you have the paddler comfortably able to lie back, put the spray skirt on and see how it impacts their fore and aft stretching. By loosening the waist and lowering it you can generally get it so the skirt is not inhibiting their flexibility. Once you have tested in fore and aft consider the rotation and sideways impact also. A good test is to get them into the balance/static brace position while you support them and see what the skirt is doing. Is it tight and tugging at them? If it is then try loosening it more to allow them to twist and bend without restriction.


As a skinny sticker (Greenland Paddle) I would prefer to be teaching people with a GP, but this is not always the situation I find myself in. If teaching using a European paddle then there are a couple of criteria that I use to help make that first roll easier to learn. First, is the feather adjustable? If so, make the blade unfeathered. This allows the paddler to easily use the paddle in an extended position and be confident about the power blade angle. Secondly I look for buoyancy in the paddle – the more the better. A heavier metal shaft with hard plastic blades offers little to no buoyancy to help the paddler and can hinder the roll as the paddle’s own weight in water needs to be overcome during the roll. When coaching I bring a series of different Greenland Paddles with me, from a monster 92 inch to a diminutive 66 inch storm. Each paddle allows me to have the paddler feel a different benefit of the paddle, buoyancy, surface area, and leverage. I use ever-reducing sizes to reduce the paddlers’ dependency on the paddle as they progress.


PFDs are a vital piece of safety gear for a paddler. PFDs can in many cases make it harder for a paddler to recover onto the back deck of their kayak if it is causing them to raise their head and shoulders high. Additionally the PDF can catch on either the edge of the kayak, deck lines, and day hatch covers. Examine the paddlers PFD and kayak. See if you can reduce the impact of the pfd. If necessary consider working with them in shallow water where you can comfortably stand up next to them and then remove the PFD to eliminate any hindrance it is causing. Removing the PFD can have a negative consequence; it will decrease their buoyancy, which can then make the roll tougher. Evaluate the rewards either way but make sure that you do not leave them unattended without their PFD on – remember they don’t have a roll to save them if they flip!


No one should learn to roll without nose clips, and if you are in a pool goggles too. The sinus pressure that can be created by repeated rolling without nose clips can cause intense pain. Some people also benefit from the use of earplugs. These do have the downside of making it harder to communicate during training sessions but they can help reduce the disorientation and pain that can come from water in the ear.

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